The Fresno State Bulldog Pride Fund is staging an intriguing fundraiser with its production of “Dear Harvey,” a play by Patricia Loughrey about Harvey Milk, the gay civil rights activist and San Francisco politician assassinated in 1978. (Today is Harvey Milk Day.) The play will be presented tonight and Thursday night at The Painted Table in the Tower District.
A stellar local cast directed by Miguel A. Gastelum tackles this nearly fully staged production that includes lighting, sound and multimedia. (Because of the short rehearsal schedule, the actors are still on book.) It features seven ensemble cast members: Joel C. Abels, Matthew Freitas, Hayley Galbraith, Jennifer Lewis, Terry Lewis, Chris Mangels, and Leslie Martin.
There are a number of price points for tonight’s 7:30 p.m. opening, including options for a two-course dinner, wine-and-cheese pre-reception and dessert post-reception. On Thursday, which features general seating, pre-performance beverages and menu items will be available for purchase starting at 5:30 p.m., with the show starting at 7:30 p.m.
Two Absurdist One Acts: “Play” by Samuel Beckett and “The Bald Soprano,” by Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Ruth Griffin. March 14-22, 2014.
“Othello,” by William Shakespeare. Directed by Brad Myers. May 2-10, 2014
Strong, interesting season. “Clybourne Park” is a very recent Broadway Tony winner — I saw it last season and it’s superb. I love the thought of an Absurdist double-header. And something tells me this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s “Our Town.”
The mysterious visitor appears from the desert like a mirage come to life. She is named Sympathy the Learned, the most educated person in the world, and she’s come here to the court of the king to prove it. Ask me any question, she says to the wisest men in the kingdom. One of these skeptical men hopes to trip her up with this: “What are the 17 branches of Islam?”
She knows the answer, of course, answering the question confidently and briskly. Brianne Vogt, as Sympathy, is great in the role. But the best part for me about this moment in Fresno State’s sweet and gracefully staged production of “Arabian Nights,” which continues through Saturday at the John Wright Theatre, is the reaction of the ensemble cast members seated at her feet.
With each of the 17 answers to the question, the other actors, sitting cross-legged at attention, twist their upraised hands back and forth, almost as if they’re belly dancers with clackers counting off each correct response. There’s something nuanced and subtle about these gestures — mere slivers of movement in a show bursting with carefully conceived motion — that adds a precious zing to the scene. It’s wonderful.
A roundup of news tidbits, random musings and sleep-deprived observations as I sit at LAX waiting for my fight to Fresno:
Saturday results: Mohammad Shehata, the Fresno City College student participating in the national critics competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, didn’t win his division. (The final technical awards were given at noon Saturday at the Kennedy Center, just before everyone scooted off to the airport.) But even though he didn’t take home the top honor, I think Shehata had an enriching experience at the Kennedy Center. He really seemed to thrive in the intellectual vigor of his sessions as he worked with top-notch mentors Bob Nelson (Washington Post) and Mark Charney (the O’Neill Critics Institute), along with Bob Mondello of National Public Radio. Shehata was the only actor in the critics group, and from what he tells me, he brought an intriguing perspective to a table full of writers (who were, of course, vastly outnumbered by actors and designers throughout the event).
The Kennedy Center itself: It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before — it’s always impressive. With its huge marble walls and sweeping views of the Potomac, you feel a “capital of the empire” vibe emanating from the building’s imposing magnitude. The chandeliers inside are bigger than my car. The Terrace Theatre, where the Irene Ryan finals were held, has a big stage, and when it’s bare — except for a tight square delineated by piercing white light — it seemed even more officious.
The “Beverly Hillbilles” connection: The Irene Ryan scholarships are named for the veteran actress who played Granny on the TV series. She gave enough money to establish the program in perpetuity. Throughout the evening, during down times, photographs of Ryan were projected on the backdrop. But it was just so weird to see her not looking like Granny.
The “competition”: Officially, it’s a scholarship audition. The “C” word must not be uttered within the presence of KCATCF organizers. Get this: the judges are called “auditors,” because if they were judges, it would be a competition, right? What-ever.
Update: Matthew McGee last night won a Helen Hayes award for outstanding supporting actor in a play. That’s a big deal!
Fresno State’s Brad Myers watched the award presentation online and got a little choked up at McGee’s acceptance speech, in which he thanked his parents (who traveled from California for the ceremony) and acting professors Myers and Leslie Martin. (You can listen to McGee’s heartfelt speech, in which he admitted he was scared to make the move to D.C. but was so glad he took the chance, here. Go to the 1:14 mark.)
How important is this award to McGee’s career? One of the hosts noted that a Helen Hayes award is highly esteemed by people on Broadway, and that having one in your back pocket can get you through lots of doors.
Original post 01/29/13: Fresno’s Facebook theater community is abuzz with the news that recent Fresno State graduate Matthew McGee scored a nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a play in the 29th Helen Hayes Awards, which represent excellence in Washington, DC-area professional theater. In doing so, he’s in the company of such nominees as Kathleen Turner, Paul Downs Colaizzo and Christopher Sieber.
There’s still plenty of time to catch the annual Contemporary Dance Ensemble at Fresno State. Five performances remain for “Joy! Shout!” 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The company, under the artistic direction of Kenneth Balint, aims to present works that are serious in content and entertaining, with a social meaning or context. This year’s program contains five premieres: “Doubt Surrounding the Inevitable Light” by guest choreographer Rogelio Lopez, “Finding Me” by guest choreographer Martha Kelly-Fierro, “Existence” by ensemble dancer Leesha Melson, and “Redux” and “Joy! Shout!” by Balint.
And talk about a bargain: It’s a ticket sale! (Update: for online sales, use the code “dances13″.)
Fresno State’s Theatre Arts’ concert “Joy! Shout!” 8 p.m. Feb. 19-23. 50% off on remaining performances bit.ly/YxlIsv
I received a thoughtful note from Brigid de Jong, a Fresno State music professor:
Thank you for the fine article about our local players participating in the Fresno Phil’s pops concert on Saturday. Jazz is alive and well in Fresno.
I was disappointed, however, that you didn’t mention the connection that exists between Fresno City College and Fresno State. The fine teaching that the students receive at FCC can segue into a degree with a jazz emphasis at Fresno State, headed by Alan Durst (whose name you did mention, but perhaps you didn’t know he developed and runs our instrumental jazz major.)
Since you made a point of acknowledging the strong jazz program at FCC, I think it would have been good to point out that our local students can continue that fine beginning by earning a BA in music with an emphasis in instrumental jazz. As it is a relatively new option, this would have been a great opportunity to inform the community about it.
Thank you for your extremely thorough and thoughtful coverage of the arts in our area. You do the community a great service by constantly showing the people here that the arts are alive and well in the Fresno community.
Students can get their burrito fix starting today as the new Chipotle at Cedar and Shaw avenues opens.
The popular restaurant chain is in the same shopping center as Uncle Harry’s and Jamba Juice. It took quite a few months to get this location — the former The Big Swirl and The Big Cheese frozen yogurt and grilled cheese shop — looking like a Chipotle.
Here’s betting the chain with an emphasis sustainably raised food that once had ties with McDonalds does well at that location. Chipotle has a history of succeeding near colleges, with its first one just steps from the University of Denver campus.
“Students are really big Chipotle fans and customers for us,” says spokesman Chris Arnold.
Chipotle is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
The doctor warns the nurse before she enters the hospital room. You’ve never seen a patient this disfigured and horrific before, he tells her. Prepare yourself. Nonsense, she insists. She’s seen it all, including the worst diseases in Africa. There’s no way she will respond with anything but compassion.
The nurse strides confidently into the room, takes one look at John Merrick — the “Elephant Man” — and promptly flees.
One of the fascinating things about Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 Victorian-era-set play, which Fresno State is staging in a solid if slightly musty (and occasionally tedious) production through Saturday, is the way it identifies with that nurse. We’d all like to think we’re strong enough, both in sensibility and spirit, to look past the “surface” and see the inner beauty within a sturdy soul like Merrick. Or at least maintain our composure when meeting someone like him for the first time. But even if we prepared ourselves, we don’t really know how we’d respond to such a situation until we were in it.
Fresno State’s “The Elephant Man,” under the direction of J. Daniel Herring, opens Friday. And it might come as a surprise to learn that Dane Oliver, who plays the title character, doesn’t use any makeup or prosthetics in his portrayal. It turns out that’s a tradition for this show. I caught up with Herring to talk about the production, which continues through Dec. 15, for Friday’s 7 section. Here’s an extended version of that interview.
Question: Many people are familiar with the movie version of “The Elephant Man.” In what major ways does Bernard Pomerance’s play differ?
There are two distinct differences. One is that the majority of the play takes place in Whitechapel Hospital while there are many scenes in the film outside the walls of the hospital. Probably the most significant difference is that the actor portraying the Elephant Man performs the role of this grossly disfigured man using no makeup or prosthetics and of course in the film, the actor is quite “made-up”.
For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the basic storyline?
The Elephant Man” is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, victim of rare skin and bone diseases, he has become the star freak attraction in traveling side shows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to London’s prestigious Whitechapel Hospital. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other.
There are two more opportunities to see Fresno State’s “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” which plays through Saturday night at the Woods Theatre. I chatted via email earlier with director Thomas-Whit Ellis, who offers his insights on this drama.
Question: Give us a brief snyopsis of the show.
Answer: Against a backdrop of social/political uncertainties and the promise of change with the dawning of the civil rights movement, mother and daughter attempt to etch out a decent life as domestics in 1950′s Chicago. A 30ish Alberta finds her life upended when a suitor, Blind Jordan stumbles into that life. Though he presents the potential for romance and happiness his presence proves disruptive to her elderly mother and uncle.
What can you tell me about the play’s production history?
The play ran on Broadway in the early 70′s to very good reviews. Soon thereafter, it was produced at my Alma Mater, CSU Sacramento. Through some serendipitous events I ended up cast in a small part (that’s listed as the voice of Rev. Goodlow). The director at that time decided to create an actual, live character and choir as opposed to the recorded voices during Alberta’s flashback of the funeral of her friend Emanuel Fisher. This was my first foray in the theatre. The production ended up as a Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival finalist.
Immersive and challenging are two words I’d use to describe Fresno State’s production of “The Sty of the Blind Pig.” Leisurely is another that might be charitably used when discussing Phillip Hayes Dean’s early 1970s play, which digs deeply into the lives of a poor black family in 1950s Chicago unaware that history is on the cusp of the civil rights movement. A less charitable way to put it would be slow-paced.
Whatever your affinity is for prose-intense three-act dramas — this one clocks in at more than two and a half hours including one intermission — it’s clear that director Thomas-Whit Ellis was intent on making audiences feel and think. I admire his commitment to the material, along with his cast’s. Though I found parts of the experience something of a slog, I was moved at times by the tenacity with which these characters came to life. (The show continues 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday at the Woods Theatre.)
“Sty of the Blind Pig” — yes, it’s an odd title, of which we learn the meaning in a climactic third-act revelation — is primarily the story of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its attendant complications and dysfunctions. Weedy Warren (Francine Oputa), the elderly mother, is pious, cranky and desperate to keep her adult unmarried daughter, Alberta (Breayre S. Tender), under her thumb. Together they share a dilapidated apartment in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods.
1. DRUM NIRVANA: The Los Angeles-based TAIKOPROJECT is a big deal in the world of Japanese drumming groups. The ensemble has performed at the Academy Awards, the Grammys and the TV show “The Voice.” I was impressed when it performed at Fresno’s Shaghoian Hall in 2010. Now the group is back Saturday as the highlight of the 25th anniversary concert of Fresno Gumyo Taiko in Fresno High School’s Royce Hall. This will be a great chance to sample TAIKOPROJECT’s theatrical approach that includes storytelling, music, hip-hop choreography, multi-media and dance. [Details]
Elisa Alpizar and Aubrianne Scott in Fresno State’s “Wonder of the World.”
Pound for pound, scene for scene, massive jar of peanut butter for massive jar of peanut butter, I can’t think of a recent local play that packs in more laughs than the very funny (and very weird) “Wonder of the World” at Fresno State. (It continues 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at the John Wright Theatre.)
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire plumbed the depths of human grief so deeply in his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Rabbit Hole” that it left me emotionally shaken. (Artists’ Repertory Theater performed the play in 2009.) So it was quite a change for me to enter the absurd comic world that Lindsay-Abaire creates in “World.” It’s like going down a completely different kind of rabbit hole.
When we meet Cass (a hard-working Elisa Alpizar), she’s on the verge of walking out on her dweebish husband, Kip (Jacob Rico, who has fun carving out a role of wondrous nerdiness). The night before, Cass discovered a dark secret in her husband’s sweater drawer — something so shocking that she opts to chuck her marriage and flee to Niagara Falls in search of a new beginning.
Aubrey Scott, Ryan Woods and Elisa Alpizar in “Wonder of the World.”
Here’s another post I promised in last Friday’s 7 section: an extended interview with director Brad Myers about the new production of “Wonder of the World” at Fresno State. Here’s the post:
Question: Can you give us a brief synopsis?
Answer: The heroine of the story, Cass, believes that she is living the life she is meant to live, until she discovers a dirty little secret about her seemingly perfect husband, Kip. In pursuit of a better life, she hops on a bus to Niagara Falls. She believes she is coming closer to her destiny when she meets a suicidal alcoholic who needs rescuing, and a lonely tour boat captain who Cass believes is the man she is supposed to be with. Complications arise when Kip shows up to win her back, after having hired two inept private investigators to hunt her down. Cass’ quest for clarity culminates in an unforgettable scene in a barrel heading toward the Falls.
At right, Philip Levine chats with Vida Samiian, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State.The Fresno State Winery will bottle a limited-edition wine blend to honor Levine, who was the Library of Congress’ 18th Poet Laureate and is an emeritus professor of English at Fresno State. The commemorative wine, which Levine named Picaresque, will be released Aug. 25. Levine worked with Fresno State’s winemaker to select the blend, and chose the label from among several designed by Fresno State students.
The wine will be released at a public reception honoring Levine, 4-6 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Smittcamp Alumni House on the Fresno State campus. Tasting of the new wine will be available.
Bottles and cases of Picaresque will be available for sale that evening at the Fresno State Winery on Barstow Avenue from 4-6:30 p.m. Proceeds benefit the Fresno State Department of Viticulture and Enology, and the Philip Levine Scholarship in Poetry. Picaresque will retail at $17.95. A limited number of bottles signed by Levine will be available for $50 each.
“Geez,” the woman sitting behind me says in a half whisper/half gasp, as Giuseppe Zangara, the attempted assassin of Franklin D. Roosevelt, jerks and wiggles in the electric chair onstage.
“Assassins” sparks a variety of reactions from audience members — some that you don’t normally associate with musical theater. Shock comes to mind. So does consternation. A musical that pushes you into an intimate acquaintance with nine successful and would-be presidential assassins is a surprising experience to absorb — especially for those walking into the show oblivious of the subject matter. And even for those familiar with the premise and who cherish theater legend Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score and lyrics, the musical is the kind of experience that slaps you around a little. It’s disconcerting when you find yourself starting to bond with some of the most nefarious names from American history.
For all these reasons and more, I’m excited that Fresno State does the material proud with a terrific, taut production. (It continues through Saturday.)
Director Brad Myers has crafted an experience that is both aggressively cerebral and punch-to-the-gut visceral. Eloquently staged with a minimum of glitz and fuss, his interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s controversial title has a brisk, polished confidence. Even as the audience might feel a little unmoored by the subject matter — it’s quite creepy watching an entire cadre of past and future assassins ganging up on Lee Harvey Oswald and convincing him to kill JFK — Myers doesn’t let us flail. His careful treatment of the material gives us something solid to hold onto even as we muse about such esoteric issues as American individualism and the ease with which a gun can make a nobody into an historical figure.
UPDATE: A few interesting follow-up links to share on this story, that’s really become more of a silly non-story.
The L.A. Times has written about it. Meanwhile, The Collegian at Fresno State put together the most comprehensive story on this that I’ve seen — getting the teacher to talk and clarifying that the whole thing was more of an “lol” moment for the anonymous student, who has since apologized to the teacher. Another student in the class had a letter published in The Bee today defending the teacher as well.
So just to recap: It sounds like the only person actually upset about this is conservative blogger/activist Oliver Darcy, who isn’t in the class, doesn’t attend Fresno State, isn’t even in the state and is jumping on his moral high-horse based on an “lol” tweet and an online synopsis. Way to go, Oliver. *eyeroll*
ORIGINAL POST, 4/17: The human sexuality class at Fresno State has ruffled the feathers of some conservative activists because of a video shown in class last week. The story went national, getting some words on The Huffington Post and the Glenn Beck-started website The Blaze. It was recently covered locally by The Bee’s Alex Tavilan.
Oh, please. President John Welty announced today at a big rally that Fresno State wants to be known as, well, Fresno State. From Eddie Jimenez’s update on fresnobee.com:
Let it be known as Fresno State. That was the message today at an unveiling on campus of a new Fresno State logo and identifying name for the university. The announcement was made at a pep rally-like event, with the school band playing and students dancing.
“It brings together everyone with a new sense of energy and commitment to our future,” university President John Welty said.
Here’s the catch: the official name of the institution will remain California State University, Fresno. So — a big pep rally to announce that nothing changes, except that the administration really, really, really likes the idea of being known as Fresno State, but not enough to actually make it official or anything. Talk about a weak marketing message.
Beehive readers will recall that I’ve used a fair amount of bandwidth in the past railing about the silliness of the Fresno State vs. CSUF nomenclature — especially considering that it was a tone-deaf bureaucratic fiat in 1972 from a now-long-departed California State University chancellor that mandated the name change in the first place. (At the time, San Jose State said no way was it going to be called California State University, San Jose — and got legislation to keep its traditional name.) I’ve reprinted a September op-ed column written by former Bee managing editor Donald R. Slinkard talking about the issue on the jump of this post — it’s a great read.
There are complexities here, including the perception that some professors prefer to be from California State University rather than from Fresno. (I think that’s a weak argument on several levels.) For me, this is in a larger sense a symptom of the blocky, centralized power structure of our state university system, where tone-deaf rules roll out like proclamations from Mordor. That’s how you end up with a local university that says, “Hey, this is what we want to be called” but haplessly adds “but we can’t do anything about the official name.” How wishy-washy is that?
The personal lives of artists have long been fertile grounds for drama. How did great artists — writers, painters, musicians — make their masterpieces? Can we begin to explain their accomplishments through sheer talent alone? How much did their environment and upbringing contribute or detract from their work?
Such issues are explored to intriguing effect in Fresno State’s new production of Polly Teale’s “Bronte,” which puts the focus on literary giants Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte. Using quick biographical vignettes, historical tidbits and the insertion of characters from some of the women’s novels (including “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre”) into the mix, we’re given a fascinating glimpse at the most celebrated sister act in literature.
While the production, directed with care and insight by Ruth Griffin, has some flaws, it deserves high commendation for tackling such an intellectually rigorous subject with such theatrical finesse. (It continues through Saturday at the Woods Theatre.)
———————————— Pictured: Brianne Vogt as Charlotte Bronte.